Japan shows depth, grabs quarterfinal spot

Midfielder Shinya Yajima (21) scores Japan’s second goal against Thailand with a header in the 49th minute on Saturday in Doha.
PHOTO: The Japan News/ANN

DOHA - Japan under-23 manager Makoto Teguramori took a bold step ahead of the key second Group B match against Thailand in the Asian qualifier for the Rio Olympics on Saturday - he changed six members of the starting lineup from the first game three days ago.

The manager's decision was made in response to the team's packed schedule, but it paid off as the new additions to the starting lineup shone to beat Thailand 4-0 in Doha.

The young Samurai Blue thereby grabbed a spot in the quarterfinals at the AFC Under-23 Championship, which concurrently serves as the Asian qualifier for the Olympics.

"We were able to demonstrate our depth by switching some members [today] - I'm pretty impressed," Teguramori said. "We scored a lot of goals, so I hope my players will ride this momentum into the upcoming games."

Japan, which beat North Korea 1-0 in its Group B opener, now has the maximum possible six points with one game left. It is leading the group, and with Saturday's other match between North Korea and Saudi Arabia ending in a 3-3 draw, it is impossible for any other team to top Japan in Group B.

Japan will face Saudi Arabia on Tuesday.

The six swapped-in starting players showed good chemistry with mainstays such as captain Wataru Endo and forward Musashi Suzuki. One was midfielder Shinya Yajima, who expressed his determination before the game, saying, "I think it'll be a tough match, but I want to help the team control the pace."

The game started to move in the 27th minute. After receiving a pass from Yajima, Endo sent a long lob to the back of the Thailand's defensive line. Suzuki sprinted to the pass and rocketed a shot into the net.

Japan doubled its lead early in the second half, when Yajima netted a header in the 49th minute off a cross from midfielder Riki Harakawa, who like Yajima started on the bench in the previous game against North Korea.

Teguramori's bold shuffling of the starting lineup reflects the tournament's hectic schedule. Japan could play a maximum of six games through the final over 18 days.

From the time of the team's formation, Teguramori has worked to improve the depth, refraining from dividing the players into regular members and substitutes when practicing linkup plays.

"We'll have to go all-out in this tournament, so I want to make every player ready for the games," Teguramori said before the championship started.

Another piece of good news for Japan was the awakening of forward Yuya Kubo, who was held scoreless in the game against North Korea.

A player for Swiss club Young Boys, Kubo scored just 4 minutes after coming on the pitch as a substitute in the 71st minute, and added another by converting a penalty in the 84th minute.

"Our performance has gotten better," Endo said after the game. "The problem [in the first match] was the lack of a second goal, so it was good for us to show improvement right after that."

The tournament's top three teams will earn a spot at Rio.